Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Religion as a Non-Factor in the Fate of Civilizations

Recently Andrew Torba released a book called Christian Nationalism which has sparked a more-bitter-than-usual falling out between the Christian and Pagan elements in what is called the Dissident Right, give or take a Pedro Gonzales twitter burst.[1] In short, Christians argue that Christianity has been vital in the development Western Civilization, while Pagans largely blame it for its decline as a kind of proto-liberalism or even communism. Furthermore, some pagans, such as Mark Brahmin, have mocked Torba for trying to squeeze Christianity into a nationalist jacket; Brahmin has branded Christian Nationalism ‘ideologically incoherent’.[2] This debate has raged for many decades and, as such, I do not think it is a fruitful one. In a sense, I want to cut through it by suggesting something almost unthinkable: Religion does not matter to the fate of civilizations. I can hear the shocked gasps from here because such a sentiment seems to be sacrilegious. Note, I am not saying ‘religion does not matter’, I am saying ‘religion does not matter to the question of the fate of civilizations’. It has long been the paleoconservative thesis, in the Pat Buchanan mould, that the decline of the USA and the West more broadly is tied to the loss of its Christian faith. The many books that argue this case include Buchanan’s The Death of the West (2001) and Jim Nelson Black’s When Nations Die (1994). In fact, it has been the ‘standard’ position on the socially conservative right since at least the end of WW2.[3] It is a central thesis also, on this side of the pond, in the work of Peter Hitchens.[4] Yet I ask: how do Buchanan, Black or Hitchens account for the fact that Thomas Carlyle thought the West to be in its ‘latter days’ as far back as 1850?[5] Or perhaps more an even more provocative question: how do any of them account for the details of this table?

 

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The third most populous Christian nation in the world is the dreaded Mexico, filled with people that many would-be supporters of Christian nationalism would presumably wish to keep out of the USA. Why has Christianity failed to produce the 1950s USA, so nostalgically remembered by Buchanan and co, in Mexico or the Philippines? What has Christianity done to tame the savagery of the Congo? In this article, I am going to advance the argument that Christianity is a non-factor in the fate of civilizations.

The most famous prophet of decline, Oswald Spengler, argued that it was not so much the loss of religious faith that is to blame for civilizational decline but a rationalistic, deconstructive impulse that leads to a loss of creativity and a cultural stagnancy. The rationalistic ‘decline’ phase follows the more vital ‘rise’ phase as night follows day. Thus, in Spengler, strength of faith is a by-product of where you happen to be in the life cycle: vital at the start when the spirit is animated, but virtually impossible in the rationalistic winter phase.[6] He inherits this idea from Giambattista Vico, who posits that after a fall and a barbarian phase, a new cycle would commence with a ‘second religiousness’.[7] But in Vico religion is simply the pre-condition for a civilization. History, in his view – as for Carlyle after him – is driven by Divine Providence. That means the decline phase in the life cycle, the Age of Humans, is driven by God as much as the first two phases (the Age of Gods and Age of Heroes). Thus, both in Vico and Carlyle, the manifestation of any particular religion can do nothing to arrest the tide of history. In Carlyle, God will send a Great Man – be it Cromwell, be it Muhammed, be it Odin – when the time comes, just as He sent Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem in the Bible.

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